July 2009

Tuesday, midday. My usual method of navigation – turn up vaguely in the area of town I think I remember the Natural History Museum is in, and walk around until I find it – is not working. I know its somewhere near the Plaza de Armas. Having got off at the wrong metro stop, walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction, searched every street on, off and parallel to the Plaza and still not found it, I’m hot, bothered and hungry. Time to take a moment out for lunch.

Of course this becomes a whole new realm of annoyance, as I’m now in a pissy mood and can’t decide on anything. Dithering in front of a fried pollo place, pacing past several spots that seem ‘too touristy’, unable to make up my mind if I should just buy an empenada and eat it on a bench. Hunger makes me stupid, hence me wanting to make what ought to be a refueling situation into a comfort situation – I just wanna sit down somewhere that’s not gonna present a whole language/culture problem for half an hour, to drink a coffee and get my equilibrium back.

After another ten minutes walking in circles I notice what looks like a chain patisserie off one of the side streets of the plaza. The patisserie faces onto the street, selling pastries and bread over a counter, while the building behind appears to be a separate cafe area, a little tucked back from the street but still with a glass front facing a small patio area. There’s a big reassuring photo of a giant croissant on the glass windows, and various signs advertising the usual Santiago-style croissant and coffee deals. My feet hurt, I need coffee, it looks reasonable – I head inside.

And… I stop. I walk in the door, and stop up short, though I’m not exactly sure yet why. There’s… something. Something about the place I’m not sure about… A waitress on the other side of the room looks up, and makes a gesture for me to come in. I hesitate, still not sure. But I’m hungry. And damn it, I’m annoyed at myself for faffing so long already. I sit down at the nearest table.

A few days later, I finally worked out that I had just made a rather embarrassing mistake that, if I admitted it to any Santiagoen, would be considered hilarious. But I didn’t realise that at the time. Only… suspected. In a flustered kind of way.

The place looked like any other cafe. Tiled floor, small round tables with easy to wipe surfaces, bright florescent lighting, aforementioned giant croissant pictures on the wall. But it also looked a little odd. There were only two other customers, even though it was the peak of lunch time – the main meal of the day. Two young guys in black faux-leather jackets and short spiky hair, hunched over coffees, making occasional conversation with long pauses while they stared at the large plasma tv. A bored cashier seated on a tall stool in front of her till: middle-aged, a little plump, but neat enough with her carefully set hair, brown trousers and beige cardigan. The tv itself, blasting out what seemed like an MTV medley – all the hits of the last ten years rattling past in an endless mix that only stopped to give you a verse and chorus of each club anthem before lurching on to the next video. Slightly nauseating after a while, especially as the nearest table when I sat down was the one right underneath it.

But most of all, the waitresses. Two stick thin, very young women in entirely matching outfits and make up. A uniform no doubt. But a uniform of skin tight purple lycra mini-dresses, with spindly black high heels, black patterned tights, long pink nails and electric blue eye shadow. As I sat down a little uncertainly, one of them came over, sweeping long black hair over her shoulder as she handed me a short menu.

She acted exactly like any other waitress would. Which just made me more confused about the frankly weird outfit. I asked for a coffee and sandwich. She told me they only had one sandwich left.

Only one? But – but – what about the giant croissant on the door? Sorry, she says. Only one. But she could have it heated up for me.

I order the one sandwich this cafe has at lunch time, and sit sipping my coffee, trying to work out what is going on. I seem to be the only person here confused. The cashier and the waitresses act like there is nothing at all strange about either their attire, or me being here looking at them in their attire – even though this is a cafe with no food. I start to get paranoid about whether the two guys are really looking at Britney Spears above my head, or at me. Are they laughing at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be? Because by the time I see a guy walk in off the street and deliver a shopping bag full of sandwiches to the waitress, that he’s obviously just brought from the supermarket over the road, I’m convinced that this must all be a front for something.

The waitress comes back and tells me politely that they now have more sandwiches. Perhaps I’d like to chose a different flavour? She lists the new ones just delivered – tripping back to the tiny little preparation counter on her ridiculously high heels when she forgets one. What she’s saying and how she says it is are utterly ordinary for a waitress. But she does have a tendency to lean in so close towards me that I find myself backing away from her in my chair. Towering above me in her heels with that long black hair about to fall on me as she politely asks if I’d like my chicken and avocado sandwich toasted… I’m grinning like a maniac so she won’t notice that I’m risking a broken neck trying to put another few centimetres between us.

While the sandwich is being taken out of its wrapper and put on a plate, I hunker down over my coffee and notebook, trying to look like I’m really busy and not at all confused. My waitress goes to stand by the cashier, leaning sideways against the counter with her arms over her skinny chest, gazing up at the tv. An air of controlled boredom hovers over them both.

Meanwhile, her matching colleague comes out from the back with a mop and a bottle of pungent bleach cleaner. Still mini-dress clad and stiletto heel shod, she gets down to mopping the floor. The whole floor. Working her way thoroughly round all those empty tables, she pushed on to clean under the table of the two guys who both ignore her as much as she ignores them. The bleach smell is putting me off my cheap white bread and mushy avocado sandwich, which I’m gulping down with as much speed as I can politely muster given that its pretty revolting to start with. She eventually makes her way over to me and, following the lead of the guys, I try to ignore the fact that she’s mopping up under my table while I’m still sitting here. And of course the fact that she’s doing so in what looks like more appropriate clothing for a cheap nightclub than the afternoon shift in a centre of town coffee shop.

I can admire a girl for being able to wash a floor that thoroughly. I can admire her for being able to walk in three inch heels. I can’t help but stare like an idiot at someone who is able to do both at once.

Eventually I have swallowed the last mouthful of my lunch, and the nice purple micro-skirt wearing waitress comes over with my bill. I leave a tip, she wishes me a nice day. As I hurry out, I notice that no one is noticing me, only watching me leave with the bored expressions of employees with no customers and hours to go till they can get out of their uniform and go home. The most confusing part of the whole experience is that I’m the only one who seems to think its really bizarre. Either I just walked into a strip joint posing as a coffee shop (in which case wouldn’t my obvious confusion have at least raised the slightest hint of a condescending eyebrow?), or there’s a really odd fancy dress theme going on today that the staff are totally unfazed by.

Half an hour later, when I finally stopped at an internet place to check, I worked out the Natural History Museum is on the other side of town to the Plaza de Armas. An hour later, when I got there and read the hand painted banner on the door, I found out the museum was closed because the staff were all on strike. Three days later, while looking through my guide book, I came across the following that explained the cafe.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

The most annoying day I’ve had so far in Santiago? Quite possibly.

Exchange between my 5 year old Asterix-obsessed niece and her godmother:

“So when you grow up do you want to be a teacher like me and Daddy?”

“No (appropriate level of scorn) of course not. When I grow up I want to be a Roman.”

Sunday. 2pm. Sitting in the multiplex cinema waiting for Emma. On the weekends the whole city closes down apart from a few sparse cafes and the larger shopping malls. Even those are practically deserted. Planning ahead, we arrange to spend Sunday afternoon sitting in the dark somewhere warm, eating popcorn and watching Harry Potter.

Hence here I am, in the big, bright, multicoloured and sticky foyer of the multiplex. Its the school vacation, so there are hoards of kids everywhere. And since the Harry Potter movie only just came out, there’s a small band of moody looking teenage goths in black plastic capes and pointy hats hovering together in a corner.

Bright lights. Sticky yellow and red colours. Bursts of popping, whizzing machine noise. The smell of pop corn, disinfectant, and hot dogs. Plump, bored employees in matching t-shirts and baseball hats. I’m early by ten mins, so find a safe haven on a bench festooned with M+M characters, half hidden behind one of those machines that gives you plastic tat in small round eggs. Next to me on a bench sits a middle aged guy, staring vaguely into the distance with the blank expression of a boyfriend deposited there by his girlfriend while she goes to get the tickets. We sit on opposite ends of the M+Ms bench, a little island of silence.

After a while two young female employees come over with a mop, half a cardboard box folded up, and expressions of resignation. They set themselves up a few meters in front of us, over a tiny splash of something on the floor that that looks sticky. Trying to ignore the kids that rush around them, one mops the floor while the other starts to fan the slops of water with the piece of cardboard. Mop. Fan Fan. Mop. Fan Fan. Both work in a slow, lackluster manner, but while the mopper keeps her head down, the woman with the “fan” stops every few seconds to shift her weight to the other foot, stick her hand on her hip, and cast glances around her. All the while keeping up a desultory stream of chit chat with her colleague, desperate not to draw attention to herself, desperate to make some small act of separation between herself and the utter ridiculousness of what she’s doing. But its hard to look ironic when you’re wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and baseball cap and flapping a piece of cardboard over a puddle.

The guy on the bench and I both stare at them. The moment passes. The kids carry on screaming and running around in a grease and sugar induced frenzy.

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove…

An insightful article by the British journalist Gary Younge in the Guardian today, that touches on some of the things I was rather incoherently burbling about in my post on personal responsibility a few days ago.

It is this context that makes elements of Barack Obama’s speech to the NAACP conference problematic. Having paid homage to the heroic role of the civil rights movement and recognised the inequalities bequeathed by segregation, he started on parenting. “We’ve got to say to our children, if you’re African- American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher,” he said. “If you live in a poor neighbourhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades; that’s not a reason to cut class; that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.”

The audience lapped it up. Such admonitions are commonplace at any aspirant black American dinner table, where parents tell children they will have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get just as far. These are the mantras with which I was raised, and may well one day repeat. But I would not like to see them elevated to national policy.

Weight and health is an issue in the US that I still, after 4 years, feel I am only slowly managing to understand. It seemed clear early on that its an issue of class and race – poor people are fat, rich people are thin. But its taken me the rest of those 4 years to try and get my head around why, like most things to do with class and race, its conceptualised and discussed as a matter of personal responsibility.

The image that comes to mind is Oprah’s publicly fought “battle” with her weight. The guilt ridden confessions where she draws herself close to her audience, admitting her own weakness and resolution to continue, amid extortions to her public to keep up the fight themselves, to not admit defeat in the face of their own urges and failings.

Similar attitudes prevail of course in the UK, but I can’t imagine something like Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food series being screened in the US, or taken seriously, with its bizarre discussions of things like education, literacy and work being involved in healthy eating.

Its your own fault if your fat, a failing of moral character, a lack of discipline. Nothing to do with the cost of food, the availability of food stores in places that people can reach without access to cars, family size and structure, the ability to cook (either in terms of knowing what to do or in having time to do it)… none of these things. Its about personal discipline. Nothing else.

(On a personal note, its been hard to avoid absorbing some of the way weight, food, health and body image are conceptualised, after several years living there. The message imparted by the fact I can never find clothes over a (UK) size 14 in the kind of shops that cater to my demographic is depressing. Spending an afternoon trailing around the shops trying to squeeze into yet another too small “XL” is not likely to do much to anyone’s ego I guess. Getting indignant about the fact that size 12 is considered “extra large” is only satisfying if I don’t actually need to buy a new coat, or sshirt or whatever. As a result, my annual trip back to the UK has become my excuse for a new wardrobe. Picture me gleefully skipping along the high street, giddy with possibilities, beaming at all the other normal, sized 12+ women around me who are blissfully unaware of how lucky they are! (Then apologising as they back away looking freaked out). Its a yearly reminder that I’m not an total heifer who ought to be kept out of sight in sackcloth and ashes.)

Health is a moral issue. To not be healthy, to not moderate one’s eating and regularly go to a gym, is perceived as a matter of moral failing, a sign of excess and laxity. The only alternative is that its a matter of genes, which then becomes a lost-Eden story of our modern perversion from a natural order laid out for us by mythical ancestors who needed fat genes to survive in a distant “primitive” past. (Which was no doubt red in tooth and claw.)

There is no society. Only personal responsibility. Personal choices.

And so this is the thing I still don’t understand, about health and about the US in general. Or rather, I see it – I get that the concept of “personal responsibility” is the whole point – but it still makes no sense. Its the same thing that makes the idea of free health care, or free higher education, or taxes, abhorrent – not just ridiculous, but a personal affront – even to the people who need it most. Its the underlying concept that makes the US tick, and I get that. But I don’t get it. I still don’t understand why anyone with half a brain, and eyes in their head to see, would believe it.

What got me thinking about it this morning, was the articles about the nomination of Regina Benjamin to be surgeon general. As Salon.com reports, Benjamin’s nomination has been criticised because she is “obese”.

By all accounts Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin is an extraordinary woman. She is an African-American family doctor who has spent most of her professional life serving the people of Bayou La Batre, a poor rural Alabama coastal community. She makes house calls, pays for patients’ medicines, works for free when there is no money. She’s had heaps of honors poured on her head , including a MacArthur genius award. She rebuilt her clinic twice, once following Hurricane Katrina and then a year later when it was destroyed by a fire.

But she’s not skinny, and therefore “She will have very limited credibility unless she loses weight”. (the links the Salon article provides to the discussions: 1, 2, 3, 4). All the things this woman has done with her life, but its the matter of not being a size 10 that makes her a failure.

Something else comes up here. Looking through the comments, she appears not as a person who is going to do things and who therefore needs particular qualifications, skills and knowledge. But as someone who will “represent” something. Her role is as a symbol, something that people should be able to identify with.

Why, she’s perfect! Looks like an average American, particularly for southern Alabama.

As such, her weight is indeed more important than her qualifications or ability to do a medical job, because her role is to be a representation of… all Americans? African-American women? Working class girl made good? Her skills (possibly her life history as a person) are not as important as her ability to symbolise something – to stand in for a mass. Its the same thread that ran through the angst ridden democratic nominations – do we need a African American or a Woman more? It comes up again and again in the discussions about politicians and public officials. What/who do they represent? Having an affair, getting a divorce, being gay – these are failings to be the mass as the mass want’s to see itself, failings of commitment to the moral ideal, failings of personal discipline. Public figures are not required to have skills or knowledge, but to embody morality. To demonstrate writ large their personal ability to control themselves, to personally overcome their disgusting bodily desires and urges, to be a representation of everything an American should be.

(Now both the Leviathan and the Protestant Work Ethic are echoing in my head, but I can do neither justice.)

Ultimately public figures all fail, just as Oprah will always fail to be skinny, and perhaps there is comfort in that too, because normal people all fail to live this imaginary moral life as well. But if failing is such a central part of the concept, then I don’t see a way to break out of it. To realise that that the problem is not personal failure, but the concept of personal responsibility being the cause of social problems.

I just finished watching Torchwood: Children of the Earth last night. And it was sooo cool! I feel the need to burble about it a little. But watch out, because there will be spoilers below.

[If you haven’t watched it yet, its on youtube, and some of it is on the pirate bay]

Ok, sure you want to read on? Here goes…

Holy hotness! Its Capin' Jack and his cute earthling groupies!

Holy hotness! Its Capin' Jack and his cute earthling groupies!

The new Torchwood mini series was just fantastic. Ok, so there were some pretty big holes in the plot and dead end leads that were untidily left lying about (the ominous caretaker guy who seemed to have all that ominousness for nothing? Or why the 456 didn’t take the 12th child back in 1965, but left him with some combination of super powers and an imaginary friend?). But still. It was damn entertaining, and I was jumping up and down in my seat right till the very end.

Ianto’s death felt a bit pointless – after all, he wasn’t sacrificing himself to save the world as Toshiko and Owen did – instead just being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the one hand, we could take that as a sign that his death (and therefore his character) is really more about Jack, and the theme of him having to sacrifice everyone he loves. This is a tad annoying because it takes away from Ianto as a character himself. On the other hand, we can see it as a theme that ordinary people without super heros do die in stupid, casual ways when they try to fight aliens. Torchwood (and Dr Who) have always been about emphasising the “normalness” of their characters, and in this sense are prepared to kill them off rather than twist believability in annoying “oh well he might be a trained sniper who has killed off plenty of extras, but the main characters will always be able to jump out of the way of his bullets” kind of way. So Ianto dying so unexpectedly is a way of saying, yeah, mortal people sometimes die when they fight aliens, and it sucks.

But Torchwood’s habit of killing off its characters – after all, it killed off the much promoted Suzie Costello in the first episode! – does seem like the series has a suicide wish. Despite the complaints that its all just a vehicle for Captain Jack, the original two series were ensemble pieces. The dynamics of the team were a huge part of the appeal – with only two of the original six left, even recruiting in spares from Dr Who won’t help. And while the new girl Lois looks promising… I don’t think its going to be enough. Having taken Torchwood out of obscurity with this prime time stunt, they seem to have inadvertently fucked themselves over by assuming it wouldn’t be as popular – or as good – as it always was. Its like the Frobisher character: things look rough so a glorious suicide seems the best idea, but in retrospect, it would have been better if they had hung on a little longer.

But anyway, back to the plot itself. Its obvious Russell Davies has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about politics these days. The whole civil service v. elected politicians looking out for their own skin theme was just fantastic, and very topical right now. But I did feel that they could have made it stronger by making Frobisher’s character a little less spineless. The point of the civil service, surely, is that is is less about single individual heroics or personalities in the way that the politicians are, and more about collective departments and groups who remain despite the changing fads of party politics. That Frobisher had no-one other than his secretaries to turn to failed to explore that dynamic. But then, I assumed they were making a veiled reference to David Kelly, particularly with his suicide.

(Don’t forget that Frobisher only stood up and did something when his own kids were threatened, implying that he was more than a spineless fool, he was also just as guilty for “following orders” to harm other’s without risk to himself. What do we do with that?)

That the real monsters are our politicians, who are prepared to calmly discuss how to cull 10% of other people’s children without touching their own, was a wonderful twist that added far more suspense than any goo squirting three headed alien could have. It was that moment of thinking: yes, yes they really are going to do it, its happening. Standing back in disbelief, feeling powerless to stop or shout out that its wrong. When everyone waits for a hero to stand up to say no, or a solution to appear that never comes. The feeling that surely this can’t happen, its so obviously wrong – but it still does.

Now where have we felt that before?

In that respect, the deux ex machine ending was rather a shame. Coming so close to the very end, in the last ten minutes, it was a bit holey even with the concept of the sacrifice of one for many thrown in. Given the theme of exploring Jack’s dark side it made sense, but in a plot based on the corruption of politics, it would have been better to have let the “gift” happen. To have had the children taken, and the people of the world rise up in anger and destroy their leaders. Now that would have been amazing. That would have underlined the feeling of powerlessness – not to aliens, but to the corruption of our own society.

Sadly, Torchwood is still a BBC family friendly drama and not a call for revolution. But then, Dr Who has always suffered from Russell T. Davies’ inability to come up with satisfying endings – the most annoying episodes are always the ones written by him. He can build up a great story line (Bad Wolf. The whole Donna thing.) raising the suspense and curiosity bit by bit, drip by drip. But the finales are always stupid. I mean really – that hand thing in Journey’s End? What was that all about?!

(Having said that, I’ve been watching the last few series backwards so may have missed something essential. I saw series 4 first, then 2 and half of 1 last summer, and only got round to watching the end of series 1 and working out what had happened to Rose this christmas. Finally.)

At the end of the day though, this show has a lot going for it. Its fun, its thought provoking, its a change from the other special FX soaked, super hero, too serious for its own good sci-fi out there. And tts truly refreshing to see gay relationships portrayed so well – inserted into the plot to make a point about a relationship, not about ticking a “gay” box. In that respect, it has something in common with The Wire. Sure, John Barrowman is a tad on the hammy side. But he’s hot. And very entertaining.

Overall, I’m sad that this will probably be the end of Torchwood. But what a way to end! Now all we have to look forward to is the new pretty boy whose going to play the next Doctor. But on the plus side, at least we are rid of Russell T Davies annoying writing.

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